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45 years after Kent State shootings, a survivor looks back

Forty-five years later, Thomas M. Grace still wrestles with how the events of May 4, 1970, on the Kent State University campus have shaped his life – and his political activism.

He saw death that day, and he was among the wounded students, a bullet ripping through his left ankle.

Grace shared an ambulance ride with Sandy Scheuer, who never made it to the hospital alive.

“I remember their saying that it’s no use, she’s dead,” he has written. “And then they just pulled up the sheet over her head.”

Scheuer was one of four unarmed Kent State students shot to death that day by National Guardsmen during an anti-war demonstration at the Ohio school. That tragedy sparked an outrage that focused the nation’s attention on U.S. military presence in Southeast Asia, as memorialized in the famous Neil Young lyric, “Four Dead in Ohio.”

Grace, a retired social worker and union leader still living in Amherst, has come full circle in his pursuit of history.

In the fall of 1968, the Syracuse native went to Kent State to study history, especially U.S. history, with an emphasis on the Civil War.

Then, as a sophomore, on May 4, 1970, he became a part of history, one of nine unarmed students wounded, along with the four who were killed.

Grace now has written a book about the roots of the Kent State protests, from the late 1950s to the early 1970s.

In short, Grace has moved from activist to chronicler.

His book, “Kent State: Death and Dissent in the Long Sixties,” scheduled to be published later this year, is more of a narrative than a memoir. He describes it as a traditional history of student activism at Kent State, explaining why that activism had been so fervent.

In the book’s 17-page prologue, he tells what happened to him that day.

National Guardsmen were on the top of an incline, maybe 75 yards away, when Grace heard one or two cracks of unmistakable rifle fire. His instincts took over, and he ran, a step or two, until the bullet entering his left heel knocked him off his feet.

Someone yelled at him, “Stay down. Stay down. It’s buckshot.” He looked up, and about 20 feet away from him, behind a tree, was his roommate, Alan Canfora.

“His warning may have saved my life,” Grace writes, as he tried to shield his body from the bullets whizzing by him.

“The worst part was having no means of protection, as if we were soldiers ourselves, trapped in a killing zone, wishing we could disappear into the ground beneath us. I remember thinking, ‘When is this going to stop?’ ”

For 45 years – the anniversary is being commemorated Monday – Grace never has sought publicity about his connection to the shooting. And he still won’t write a memoir focusing solely on his role.

“I simply, flat out, wouldn’t have written the memoir,” he said in a lengthy interview in his Amherst home, where he lives with his wife, Peggy Roberts. “I would have found it presumptuous and arrogant. I don’t have that big an ego, and I haven’t lived that interesting a life.

“As I always tell people, getting shot is not an accomplishment,” Grace added. “Not getting shot is an accomplishment.”

Following his longtime work as a West Seneca Developmental Center social worker and union leader, the father of two grown children remains active in Kent State affairs and as a Civil War scholar who teaches an Erie Community College course on the topic. The zeal from his anti-Vietnam War days still burns inside him, especially his intolerance of economic and racial injustice, keeping him involved with the Coalition for Economic Justice.

Grace can’t help but notice the parallels between the shooting of unarmed students in Kent, Ohio, and the recent wave of unarmed black men being shot by police across America.

“In some ways,” he said, “Kent State is as fresh as today’s headlines.”

As Grace looks backs over the last 45 years, he’s proud of how hard he’s worked to help Kent State, located about 40 miles southeast of Cleveland, never forget the so-called May 4 Massacre.

He’s been back to Kent at least 100 times over the years, and he strongly supports efforts that have led to a Visitors Center, to outdoor signage showing visitors what happened that day and to the creation of the May 4 Task Force, to help future Kent State students keep the memories alive.

Grace has two possible regrets about his actions that day in 1970.

One, that he attended the potentially violent anti-war demonstration after promising a close friend he wouldn’t. And he smiled at the thought that he could have been a little more diplomatic in the earlier years after the shootings.

One day, in about 1980, he ran into then-university President Brage Golding in the new student union.

“Why do you keep coming back here?” the president asked him.

“Because I think it’s important that people remember that murder was committed here,” he replied.

Grace recalls how the university, at one point, tried to distance itself from that tragedy by rebranding itself simply as “Kent,” not “Kent State.”

But in the 1990s, under then-President Carol Cartwright, the university reversed its position, deciding to embrace its history, not conceal it.

“They allowed people to achieve a certain measure of peace with all this, to come to terms with it,” Grace said.

He almost bristles at the idea that Kent State was an unlikely place for such heated protests, that its students lacked the political consciousness to wage such battles.

Instead, the student body included many working-class students, and the working class largely fought and died in the Vietnam War, he pointed out.

In 1970, 10 percent of Kent State students had fought in Vietnam, he said. They came back to a small-town college campus to find another battlefield.

“They had a great deal of difficulty processing how they could have fought a war in defense of their country and then come home and have armed agents of the state fire on them when they were unarmed,” he said of those veterans.

He also knows that his association with the tragedy never will end, as demonstrated when he attended an adult baseball camp in Cooperstown in 1997.

Grace, whose full name is Thomas Mark Grace, decided to sign up as Mark Grace, in honor of the popular Chicago Cubs first baseman. But he also did it to avoid having to explain his lingering left-ankle injury.

In one game, he was beaned, probably suffering a concussion. He went back to the bench.

“It’s a good thing the ball hit you in the head and the bullet in the foot, instead of the other way around,” one of his campmates said to him.

Turns out one of the campers had a relative who was a switchboard operator at the university back then.

Kent State will always remain imbedded in Grace.

Even 45 years later.